General Assembly Journal 2007- Wrap-Up
Sine Die and Wrap Up (Volume 3)
This week we'll continue our examination of the policy successes and blunders of the 423rd General Assembly.
This looked like the year for a major healthcare access initiative. Unfortunately, the crystal ball didn't take into account the directive issued by Senate President Thomas V. (Mike) Miller (D., Prince George's/Calvert).
President Miller wanted to see a floor debate and vote on his beloved slots bill, a position he has valiantly defended now for three of the last four years. His stumbling block and nemesis has been House Speaker Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel), who didn't appear inclined to budge this year, either.
Senator Miller was looking for an ally on the second floor of the historic State House, having gotten used to the pro-slots hallelujah chorus coming from former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's office suite. Unfortunately, the only music from Gov. Martin O'Malley's office was a lilting Irish melody with lyrics suggesting that the legislature wait a year to debate either slots or taxes.
One thing you can say for our new governor, he knows how to learn a lesson! All four years of the Ehrlich Administration were tied up in a running battle between chambers on the question of slots, and the only clear winners were the lobbyists and their billable hours on both sides of the debate. Governor O'Malley simply wasn't prepared for the battle and asked for time to find his own reductions in Maryland government spending.
Now, what sensible legislator would oppose giving a governor time to make his own cuts before discussing tax increases?
So, with no chance for a slots bill and the tax debate off the table, Senator Miller issued a directive to his four committee chairs to reject all legislation that either increased the cost of government by $250,000 or included a new revenue source. The logic is odd, but compelling. It's the old: if I can't have what I want, none of you will get yours, either!
So, the Access to Healthcare for Working Families and Children Act of 2007 was in trouble from the very start. This bill, funded through an increase in the cigarette sales tax of $1 per pack, would make health insurance available to over 100,000 children and working, poor adults.
The net affect would be a doubling of the state Medicaid program, with the first two to three funded through a cigarette tax increase, with the out years funded by the Uncompensated Care fund. Clearly, the cigarette tax was controversial, but the goal of getting sick poor people out of hospital emergency rooms seemed sound.
After a lot of work, including an amendment that I drafted with Del. Eric Bromwell (D., Baltimore Co.) to exempt premium cigars from the tax, the bill passed the House of Delegates with 107 (out of 141) votes. Four Republicans supported the bill, along with almost all of the Democrats.
That was as far as it went, at least this year. The Senate Finance Committee did hold a hearing on the bill, but at the beginning of the hearing, the chairman, Mac Middleton (D., Charles) made it clear the bill wouldn't pass. He cited the $250,000 limit from President Miller, but he left the door open to future consideration.
Fortunately, there is a little bit of good news on the healthcare access front. A bill passed allowing insurers to offer a low-cost health insurance product for part-time and temporary workers. Another bill passed allowing children to remain on their parent's health plan until the age of 25, regardless of student status.
Finally, a more controversial bill passed that allows adults, in a mutually co-dependent relationship, regardless of gender or marital status, to insure one another on their health plan. There was some discussion about codifying same sex relationships, but again, the idea of providing greater access to healthcare was deemed more important than the political debate over lifestyle choices.
The Clean Cars bill passed. Dealers will be required to sell cars that meet the standards set by the California Emissions Control Board by 2010. That board is appointed by the governor of California, but their policy decisions will be binding on Maryland car buyers. Why does it always have to be the whackos in California setting these goofy trends?
The Clean Indoor Air act passed, requiring all restaurants, bars, and taverns to ban smoking. The ban includes private membership clubs, an issue that appeared poised to derail the bill until a House/Senate conference committee eliminated the exemption. Cough, cough.
Retailers will be prohibited from selling detergents that contain greater than 0.5% phosphorus beginning in 2010. The worry is that there are very few low-phosphorus detergents on the market that clean as well as the phosphorus-rich versions currently marketed. Soap manufacturers indicate that more compliant products are on the way, though. Let's hope so, or we'll all soon have a bunch of dirty dishes on our hands.
Crime & Punishment
Jessica's Law passed, with stiffer mandatory minimum sentences for child sex offenders. Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly continued his assault on legislative leaders, once again asking his viewers to contact recalcitrant Maryland legislators. Second time drug offenders serving mandatory minimums will now be eligible for parole. Previously, they were forced to serve the whole mandatory sentence. Without it, why bother with mandatory minimums? A bill passed with longer sentences for gang-related crimes, and our own State's Attorney, Charlie Smith, was out in front on this issue. So was Sheriff Chuck Jenkins.
After a failed attempt (vetoed/no override) during the Ehrlich years, the O'Malley Administration pushed through a living wage bill. Unfortunately for most, it only applies to state contracts. Those who win state contracts will now have to pay a wage rate of $11.30 per hour in urban Maryland, $8.50 per hour in the rural areas.
The Democrats in Annapolis are quick to talk about "One Maryland." I guess what that really means is One Maryland where rural counties constantly get screwed over by the counties that have the most legislative votes. Nothing ground-breaking there!
So another General Assembly session falls away in the rearview mirror. The road ahead is treacherous, that billion dollar deficit looms over almost every important policy discussion. Will we cut spending? Raise taxes? Approve slot machines? All of the above?
Stay tuned here next year for the inside scoop.